When Do I Become a Stepmother?

How Stepmum In Stilettos Uses the Title and Why You Are Welcome Here

There is opinion out there that a woman only becomes a stepmother when she’s married, or when she sees her partner’s children regularly, or when the children see her as another parent. In this blog’s opinion these schools of thought are not fantastically helpful, and serve to diminish the wonderful jobs that thousands of women are doing to enhance and enrich the lives of the people they love. Read on to understand how this blog treats the term “stepmother” and why.

It is unfortunate that the UK’s legal definition of ‘stepmother’ is “The wife of one’s parent when distinct from one’s natural or legal mother”. It is even more unfortunate that this is also the case in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Collins Dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary, dictionary.com, thefreedictionary.com… in fact the only definition I have come across which takes a more modern-day relevant approach is Lexico’s:

“A woman who is the wife or partner of one’s father after the divorce or separation of one’s parents or the death of one’s mother.”

Why is Including “Partners” So Important?

There are two major issues with not including partners in the official definition of ‘stepmother’.

The first is that in the majority of cases, a stepmother will be acting as such long before she is married to her stepchildren’s parent.

The second is that it puts emphasis on a construct that not everyone believes in. You can be committed and an integral part of a family without being bound together on paper.

The term “unmarried stepmother” does appear across stepparenting forums and articles, particularly around the subject of Parental Responsibility, and if it wasn’t possible to be one unless you were married then this term would be a complete contradiction. It is worth noting that civil partners are now included in this definition, but this is not spelled out as such in the references listed above – which are arguably now outdated.

Furthermore, simply being married to (or in a civil partnership with) your partner doesn’t actually give you any additional legal rights in relation to your stepchildren in and of itself, so all the definition serves to do is to put unmarried couples at yet another social disadvantage. For further discussion see this blog’s series “Stepmothers and the Law“.

Further still, it has only been very recently that same-sex couples have been granted the same marital and parental rights as straight couples, and such definitions have served to further alienate such couples from the discussions and support they might otherwise have felt entitled to.

It Might Be a Cultural Thing, Of Course.

It does seem that general opinion emphasises marriage slightly more prominently in the States than in the UK. Whilst it absolutely makes sense that when your relationship is in its infancy, jumping right in and calling yourself a stepmother might be slightly premature and may cause you more grief than joy, it is perfectly possible for you to be committed and living in a marriage-like state without actually being married.

One final point before we move on; because who can resist a feminist angle? As it’s very much still the case that men will often be the one to propose in a straight relationship, by waiting until marriage for the validation of the stepmother title, our validation is still tied up in our men. Women should feel empowered to stand up and say, no, I’m not “just the girlfriend”, I’m a damn sight more than that and it’s time to be seen.

(NB I must caveat this by pointing you in the direction of someone who does use the term “girlfriend” very well – Dani Alpert in The Girlfriend Mom. A witty, endearing look at what it means to fit into your partner’s life.)

Now that the bees are buzzing in our beautiful bonnets on the marital status front, let’s take a look at some other reasons why you might be feeling out-of-step.

My partner is currently going through parental alienation, and we haven’t seen his children in two years. I’ve only met them once. Am I still a stepmother?

In this situation, this woman is helping her partner through an enormously trying time. She’s supporting him through the grief of the loss of precious time with his children as they grow, and she is therefore making emotional room in her life for his children even without them being physically present. When, fingers crossed, the time comes to welcome them back into her partner’s life, she will be navigating some very difficult dynamics, all whilst maintaining her relationship and (hopefully) her sanity. She’s absolutely acting as a stepmother, and if she feels that the title would serve her well then she should go ahead and call herself so.

I’ve been with my partner for years, but his children still refuse to acknowledge me as his girlfriend – let alone as their stepmother. Does this title apply to me too?

This woman feels alienated from her place in her family due to the children’s behaviour. It is, however, her relationship with her partner that determines her role in the family, and not the acceptance of the children. This is actually an important thing for all stepmothers to remember throughout their stepmothering journeys, as prioritising their relationship and allowing their connection with their stepchildren to develop over time is one way to achieve happiness as a stepmother – more on this to follow. So yes, she can count herself a member of the Stepmum (In Stilettos) Club.

My partner’s children live half way across the country, and we only see them every other month for a couple of days at a time. It doesn’t seem that we have much input into the way they are raised. Am I a stepmother too?

The reality is that there are many women in a similar situation, whether as a result of geography, or a difficult relationship between co-parents, or purely down to the age of the stepchildren – as children hit their teenage years, it’s very common for time with their parents to fall down their list of priorities, and often stepparents report a significant drop in family time and what feels like the opportunity to input into their upbringing. However a parent remains a parent regardless, and as it’s your relationship with the children’s parent that determines your existence as a stepparent, it logically follows that you remain a stepmother also. Remember too that just because your time with your stepchildren is limited, your impact doesn’t have to be. Persevere with the time you have, and take refuge here when it all feels too much.

Becoming a stepmother comes with a huge amount of responsibility, and is not something which is taken on lightly by the women who choose to do so. Whether or not it always feels like it, you have the potential to make a huge difference to the children who’s lives you’ve entered. It’s therefore Stepmum In Stiletto’s humble opinion that you shouldn’t be undermined by society telling you that you’re a floating, nameless party in the family you care so much about.

This blog views ‘stepmother’ as a title you give yourself when you feel it’s right to do so. In a role which is so entirely undefined, and different from family to family, what you refer to yourself as in relation to your partner’s children might be one of the few freedoms you have; even if just in the privacy of your own head. If it was down to your stepchildren to decide, or your marital circumstances, you might never get there. So if it looks like a stepmother, and it sounds like a stepmother… (then it’s probably a duck).